Whitehall’s decision not to upgrade the UK’s border IT systems in time for Brexit is “borderline reckless”, the Public Accounts Committee has warned.
The influential cross-party group of MPs found that government departments are assuming the risks to managing the border will not change after March 2019.
As such, they are not planning for any major new physical infrastructure at the border and “do not expect all new or updated IT systems to be ready by that date”, the PAC said in a scathing report.
HMRC told the committee that “29 or 30” of the 85 different IT systems operating at the border will need to be changed or replaced, but that they will not be in place by March 2019.
Despite claiming to be planning for a no-deal scenario, departments are “relying too much on there being a transitional period”, the PAC said.
“This approach, in the context of what continues to be huge uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, might generously be described as cautious,” said PAC chair Meg Hillier. “But against the hard deadline of Brexit it is borderline reckless — an over-reliance on wishful thinking that risks immediately exposing the UK to an array of damaging scenarios.”
“The volume of traffic at the border under current arrangements is substantial: in 2016, around 300 million people and 500 million tonnes of freight crossed it,” Hillier added.
“After Brexit, the number of decisions required about people or goods crossing could more than treble and more than quadruple respectively. These figures should concern all in Government and in our view its current approach is not fit for purpose.”
The committee also cast doubt over government departments’ ability to deliver the new systems. It noted that the Home Office’s e-borders programme was cancelled seven years after it launched, prompting a commercial dispute costing £150m.
“A successor, the Digital Services at the Border (DSAB) programme, will not now be delivered until 2019, sixteen years after the programme was first envisaged,” the committee wrote.
The MPs are now calling on the Border Planning Group to provide evidence by March 2018 that its assumptions on border risk are realistic.